On this episode of THRIVE — sponsored by Workamajig — Kelly and Brandon Wilson discuss the impact of sabotage on our leadership pursuit and how to overcome it when it’s present both around and within us.
Episode 108 :Overcoming Sabotage as Agency Leaders, with Brandon Wilson
Kelly: Welcome back to Thrive, your agency resource. I have a question for you. What if you didn't actually look at your job as leading an agency? What if you looked at it as creating leaders? Today, I'm talking with Brandon Wilson, who's the CEO of Wilbron, a purpose-focused PR firm located in Birmingham, Alabama. He's a highly sought-after communications consultant, actually a New York Times scholar, and is the author of a book called Sabotage. Brandon, welcome to Thrive my friend. I could not be more excited to have you and to talk with you today.
Brandon: Likewise, thank you so much for having me, Kelly.
Kelly: So, I mean, we got to start somewhere. Right? So, sabotage is a really interesting word. How do you define sabotage? And talk maybe a little bit about how we need to broaden that definition?
Brandon: That's a big question to start off with. And I'll do it in a way that's palpable, for those who are driving or maybe listening on the fly. And I'll start by talking about what I do. So, what I do every day is I connect very talented leaders to doing really bold and audacious things. That's what I do. Every day, I wake up when a leader calls and they say what they want to do A. I say, no, we need to do A, B, C, and D. And this is how we get after it. And in that time, I've been providing management consultancy to more than 100 college presidents. I've helped them build buildings on their campus, expand their campus, enrollment, go from being a college to a university. I work with executives at Apple, and right now we're working with them to build an actual college campus, which I'm really excited about, working with Yale professionals at Yale to get after global health disparities in Canada and the US and in parts of Africa. And, what I've learned over my experience in helping to connect leaders to really powerful and bold pursuits, is that there are three types of leaders. The first leader is the one who does what's instructed, and this is about leadership development, about who does what's instructed. They're given things to manage, then they're the leaders who are to lead within or to manage them, they are the leaders who are given things to manage within. And these leaders, they do things for the sake of getting them done. Like I want to get it done. I got it done. I completed that checklist check. And a lot of people are trying to drive and say, yeah, I'm going to do a lister, like I'm going to check boxer. I'm getting it done. And then there's another level of leadership, another level of leader who connects the things they have to get done, the things that they are responsible to a sense of urgency, because they understand the consequences of them being successful or not being successful. And as a lot of the leaders that I engage with are those leaders, they understand that I have to fulfill this thing. Because I can make the world a better place, or the world might miss out on this or that if I am not successful. And it's those leaders who start to have conversations with me about not just about what things I can do, but about the barriers that they either put in front of themselves, or that are imposed upon them that stop them from getting after that pursuit. And this is sabotage. It’s any activity that seeks to subvert, slow down, scuttle, confuse, frustrate you, your leadership, and your pursuits, all for personal gain. And it's all around us.
Kelly: I mean, thank you for bringing that full circle. That's an incredible definition of sabotage. It's a word that we don't use that often. So that's why it's memorable or remarkable because it really just sticks out. And so that's your definition of sabotage. With your work in the world, what is the broader definition that we actually have to start thinking about? Because I'm going to imagine that this is a process, we have to train ourselves to start, sort of broaden this definition and understanding.
Brandon: You do, and that activity can be defined in a myriad of ways based on our own lives. And I want to give name to a face to it. And these are the things that we typically think about and I'll start on that end of the spectrum, and then work myself to the part of the spectrum that we usually don't spend as much attention talking or focusing on. When we think about sabotage on the extreme end of the spectrum, that's really common. We usually think about theft. Oh, somebody stole something from me. When we think about deceit, everybody's been lied to in their life. That's an act, those are acts of sabotage. We think about being betrayed if you go down that. Oh, I've been betrayed. The part of the spectrum that we don't tend to think a lot about is the self-sabotage, the theft that we do to our sales, the betrayal we do to our sales, and the things we steal from our sales. I have a great story about that. About 2014 or so, I had a brilliant idea. As we all do, I woke up and I was on fire. I said, “This is what we're going to do. I'm going to start a grocery delivery service. I'm going to start a technology that allows moms to shop for other moms. I'm going to do it.” And I just came out of a bad business venture, which we'll learn about later on. And I said, bad business venture be damned. I'm going to do this. So, I woke up. I willed myself to write a business plan. I failed. Some supporters, I went to go talk to my attorney. They say it's a brilliant idea. I hired a research firm to research the appetite, no pun intended, of people, for a grocery delivery technology. And, as I was leaving that research group, the person I was speaking with said, “Well, hold on, Mr. Brandon. There's another guy who is doing something similar to what you're trying to do. And he’s struggling. It’s hard work. Oh, he got stuff all over his garage. He can't even move some of the stuff he's doing. It's horrible. Are you sure you want to do this?” I think about it. Oh, got in my car. It's like, of course, I get in my car. And I said, am I sure I want to do this. I go home and talk to my wife. And my wife said, “Well, listen, you just got out of this bad deal. Are you sure we could take on this?” And I was like, “I don't know.” Then I started talking to myself. And I told myself, what do I know about the grocery industry? Like, what do I know about technology? What do I know about any of this stuff? And I talked myself out of pursuing the venture. I sabotaged myself. And it was because I saw myself as incapable, like my self-perception of myself was someone who was incapable of doing it. It was a self-limiting thought that I had. Whereas at the same time across town, in the same city, there was a guy who was a high school dropout from a family of entrepreneurs, who had the same idea. His name is Bill Smith. And he started this company, grocery delivery service. He didn't see himself as incompetent or incapable. He saw himself as a winner. And he did it. He got it done right down the street, literally 10 miles away from my house. So, he got it done. And you may have heard of that company. That company that he started is called Shipt. It's sold in about 2017 or so to Target for $500 million. And I was in a private meeting with the chairman and CEO, Brian Cornell of Target. And he stood at that meeting, and he said you want to know why I bought Shipt? You want to know why I did it? And I was like why? He said, because I thought it was revolutionary, that there was a technology that would allow moms to shop for other moms. I was like, that's my idea. But I stole $500 million from myself. And we rarely talk about that, that part of sabotage.
Kelly: I love that reframe. I mean, this is a negative refrain, but I kind of like it.
Brandon: Yeah, we steal all kinds of opportunities from our sales. And if we start to realize the forces within us, there are forces external people do, betray, steal, and deceive us. But when we start also looking at the betrayal, theft and deceit that we do to ourselves, that self-sabotage we'll start to read the forces in our lives that stop us from achieving our best lives.
Kelly: Yeah. So, kind of building on this like, yes, there are internal and external factors idea. In the book you talk about the four horsemen of sabotage or saboteurs. Can you talk a little bit about those? Because I think that's a good place to kind of keep the conversation going.
Brandon: Well, I appreciate that segue. The reason I wrote the book, and then I'll get into the four horsemen of sabotage is because I started to speak with leaders, as I said earlier, who were really high powered, but then I start to speak to leaders who are not building campuses, like they're just leading families, which is a monumental leadership pursuit. They're starting businesses, which is a monumental thing. And it may be a solo practitioner, which is a monumental thing to do. Or they're just being a role model for their children. And every one in every three leaders that I spoke with, had their own story of sabotage. And they didn't share it with anybody. And I say that I start to ask in my research in the book, why aren't you talking about this. And they instantly talk about how embarrassed they were.
Kelly: Mortified. That's the word that comes from me.
Brandon: Mortified. It weighed on them. They had to sweep it under the rug, not put a light on it. Because of course, this couldn't be happening to anybody. And if somebody in your audience is one of those people, it is happening to everybody. That's the message I want you to know. I totally can talk about this thing. And what I also realize is that even less people, who were prepared with the tools needed to overcome sabotage, or to see sabotage before it happens. And so, the analogy that I like to give is that where something physically breaks, let's say, an airplane doesn't fly. There are mechanisms inside of an airplane that stop it from propelling forward. And it sabotaged that airplane, because the airplane now cannot do what it is purposefully built to do. Your refrigerator if an engine goes and it sabotages that and it won't make anything cool, it sabotages the purpose. Well, there are things in and around our lives that we could also look to, that seek to sabotage us, maximizing, or even realizing it, fulfilling the purpose that we're built to do. And there are four of them. We call these four horsemen of sabotage. And these four horsemen are identified to give you the eyes, the lenses, to see betrayal, theft and deceit before it impacts your leadership pursuit, and not in any particular order. But the first is jealousy. If you, yourself are a jealous person, or if you see people around you who are jealous, and I'll define what jealousy is, and that is hatred disguised as anything, but it is loathing to see someone else win. And it is also a mentality that says that the pie is fixed. But if you gain a yard, I've lost a yard. And if you find yourself surrounded by those folks, then there's a set of sabotage that follows that horseman, and the book details, the kind of activities that come with that horseman, but even more what you can do to protect your leadership and your leadership journey from those activities that's powered by the horsemen of jealousy.
Kelly: I really like this. I just want to pause here for a second because it's almost like if you use the analogy of love or being in a relationship, it's like, there's an infinite amount of love available. Right? And so, if I love one person, it doesn't mean that there's less love for other people.
Brandon: Yeah, that's right.
Kelly: So, I think what's important about these terms and how we're applying them to personal and business, is being able to kind of jump back and forth and oscillate back and forth between how this applies in business. When I view a competitor as stealing all my clients.
Brandon: There are clients everywhere.
Kelly: There are clients everywhere and that other agency might have been a better fit for them. You don't actually know what the inner workings are. Focus on yourself. There's plenty to go around.
Brandon: That's right. No, that's some great background. [Commercial] The other horseman is arrogance. And arrogance needs no introduction. There are people who we lead people, we work with who have a heavy resistance to training or to corrective insights or to critical insights about how they can be better consumers, feedback in any way. And these folks who are arrogant are literally not self-aware. I mean, they're highly curated, and they care about themselves, but they lack vision of themselves in a particular environment. And that lack of vision positions them as a horseman, to do activities with lack of concern about the impact that it has on everybody else.
Kelly: Less empathy.
Brandon: That's right, less empathy. These folks are positioned to be defiant as employees and defiance is an act of sabotage. It is an activity that seeks to frustrate, slow down what you're after, for selfish gain. So, employee defiance is the next sabotage that’s driven and fueled by the horseman of arrogance. The third horseman is lying. And there are different levels to lying. Those who like to say, don't look at me, so that I can continue to operate in the way that I like to operate. And then there's also a level of lying that lies to harm others, that literally says, oh, that person did A, B, and C. Go and get them. My CEO, the ABC, go get him or her, like, go get them. And so, lying as a horseman. So, whenever you find someone around you, or the force of lying or dishonesty around you, there's a set of activities. And the last is seduction. Seduction is an incredibly captivating horseman because it thrives in its joy, people who are seducers find great pleasure in getting you to come along their journey to doing things that may skirt really close to the lines of ethics. They really don't care about whether or not the means or the end is justified by the means. And it's not really about doing something that's unseemingly, or doing something that's unethical or doing something that's close to unethical. Their pleasure is convincing you to come along with them. And they have a lot of tactics that they wield to get you to say, yes, I want to come along on this journey.
Kelly: Is this sort of like the thing that comes up for me when you're saying that is like challenging integrity, or challenging human values?
Brandon: That's right. That's right. And, one of the things, the tactics that they use is they'll say, listen, if we're successful in this, when I get that next promotion, and become the senior account director at my agency, I'm going to bring you along and put you in my division. Yes, you're coming with me? And we keep doing it again. But the end of that ruse always, always ends in that person who has been seduced, becoming the fallen person at the end of the day. And so, we could think about those four horsemen of sabotage, as canaries in the coal mine, but it's also important to think about them also, as things that we can inflict on others. You also have to be very self-aware.
Kelly: Or to a third one is things that we unknowingly are doing to ourselves or practicing within ourselves.
Brandon: That's right. Absolutely.
Kelly: It's internal. It’s external, but the external could go toward other people or toward us, right?
Brandon: That's right.
Kelly: There are 3 different ones. It's so interesting. Like, as you're talking, I'm like, oh my God, it started out as a little nebulous. And now I'm like, oh, wow, this is really, really fascinating. Because the way that you talked about it was like, oh, these types of people, but actually, it's even greater than that.
Brandon: That's right. I call them forces.
Brandon: Forces within our lives and around our lives that we need to protect ourselves against. And the question is, why? Like, why does it matter as a leader, and I call protecting your leadership from sabotage, I call it a leadership discipline. In the same way, we call a leadership discipline to be a reader or a learner or to be resilient, or to be a great communicator. We also need to also be very masterful when it comes to protecting our leadership pursuits from sabotage. And if you think about it this way, and I hope this is an aha moment for those listeners and viewers who might be on the fence thinking that sabotage has little to do with me is that, every mentor that we've ever had, every strategist that has ever gone, and had astronomical success, were those people who we call wise, but they are wise, because they are adept at building a leadership journey toward doing really big and audacious things with as little barriers as possible. They know how to protect their pursuits from the forces of sabotage. And there are a couple of examples from this. I like to start with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was a persistent target for sabotage.
Brandon: He's a womanizer. He's an absentee husband. He's not ethical. He's in over his head. And if he allowed those saboteurs, whether they be the federal government, which is well documented, to be successful, then we would literally, we would have a different world than we have today.
Brandon: Another leader is Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs was a victim of sabotage. He hired a guy named John Sculley from Pepsi company to be a CEO, while he went out and focused on building the iMac, I mean, and his whole pursuit was not the iMac. His pursuit was figuring out a way to put the computer in the palm of our hands. Sculley just wanted to be a CEO of an innovative company. And Steve was in his way. Yeah, it was ego. He was in his way. So, he effectively got Steve Jobs fired from the company he started. Think about that. I mean, think about it. What was in Steve Jobs? His second act was fueled by leadership discipline that we don't talk enough about. And that is the ability to know who was for him and who was against him in his pursuit. He knew how to protect all of his pursuits. From all of those forces that we just talked about sabotage. He actually called what Sculley did to him, betrayal. And it's because he understood how to overcome that leadership sabotage, that we now have the iPhone, that we now have these incredible cameras on these phones, that we now have these incredible MacBook Pros, that we now have all of this and technology. But even more than the technology, Steve Jobs proved himself, just as Martin Luther King, Jr. did prove himself to be that third kind of leader that we talked about earlier. They refuse to be deterred, or stopped, because they married the things that they were after to the consequence it can have or bear on the world around us.
Kelly: If they didn't.
Brandon: Yeah, absolutely. If they didn't succeed.
Kelly: Pursue it.
Brandon: The same with Mahatma Gandhi. The same with Thomas Edison, the same with JP Morgan, whether you agree or not, they view their leadership journey as consequential. That's a word that we don't marry with leadership enough. What they're doing and what your audience members are doing, has incredible consequences. And whenever we allow sabotage to interrupt our leadership, we're allowing those saboteurs to rob our worlds of the gifts of our leadership.
Kelly: Right. Yeah, it's really fascinating. And I wouldn't even call this like a reframe. But I do think that there's some kind of mindset shift here, where in like shadow work, we call it, like, a 180. What is the benefit that I would have missed out on had I not gone through this traumatic experience? And what we're saying here is like, from a leadership perspective, what is the potential negative impact? If I don't pursue this to the best of my ability, right?
Kelly: I really, really liked that. So, as we start to wrap up, I'd love to kind of talk about, you mentioned interruption, right? So, if we have this idea of uninterruption or uninterrupted, how do we actually catch it? All of these four horsemen, how do we catch ourselves before they interrupt our lives and disrupt our lives and potentially destroy any opportunity for us to find that success?
Brandon: Yeah, this is a great place to end. Because I want to share a personal story. Now, there's a great author that said, “To first write a book, you must first become the book.” And I am not just espousing what I've read in a book. I've lived and survived and overcome sabotage. So, for all your audience members, it happened before 2014, around 2012 or so. I said, “Listen, the abbreviated part of the story is that I'm going to grow my agency, and I'm going to grow it by acquisition. I'm going to buy other agencies. And I got a phone call from a good friend of mine, who said that there was one of the oldest agencies in America, I was interested in selling, and they put us, put me together with their chairman and CEO. And we had a great relationship. He was gregarious. He was incredibly well connected. I allowed myself to be put into a mentor-mentee relationship with him. He was a very older gentleman. And, because of that uneven relationship, and because the prospects of doing that business deal would make me millions of dollars, I pursued even against good advice. And one of the bad pieces of advice I got was to set up an asset sale prematurely, where we would set up a third entity, and then our monies will start going to that third entity. I started putting money, sending clients, putting things into this third entity, all under while doing due diligence, all against my advice, advice of legal counsel, and about a year into this ruse, I got a call from our attorney, and he says, “Brandon, you got to come to my office.” And he showed me a UCC check. And, that third entity never existed. And he said, “Brandon, where is your money going? He's taking your money.” And so, we filed separation documents. We moved. And this is when that person revealed himself as a saboteur. I remember taking the documents to him or sending them over to him, and we had a conversation and it went like this. He said, “Brandon, I know you said, you're going to stop giving me my money. But I'm going to keep taking it. And if you don't continue to give me my money, I'm going to kill your wife.” That's what he said. I'm going to kill your wife. And he leans back in his chair. And this bully says, “I'll tell you how I'm going to do it.”
Kelly: Oh, my God.
Brandon: “I'm going to call the buddies at the police department at the Attorney General's office, and I'm going to have all these trumped-up charges against you. And if they come and arrest you, I know you can get out because you got my money. He said sort of half jokingly. He said, “But what I'm really after is the mug shot. I want to give you a mug shot so I can send it all-around town and have you black-balled. But this is how it's going to kill your wife. It is going to kill your wife because she's going to have to look in the mirror every day and look at her friends every day and know that they know that she's married to a crook. Do you want that kind of life, young man?”
Brandon: And I got up and walked away. And I fought. I punched the bully back. And I survived. Nearly $700,000 later. But it was that experience that made me realize how persistent sabotage is and it led me on a journey to talk with other folks about how evasive sabotage is as well. And there are two things that we can do that can stop us from being victims of sabotage in closing. One of those is to always lead with integrity, even if it means that we have to stand alone. Never run with the crowd. I mean, just lead with integrity. And then the other thing to stop self-sabotage, the power palette for stopping self-sabotage is to harness and curate a positive self-identity, view yourself as a winner, view yourself as a fighter, view yourself as a finisher, and then you will do those things. And self-sabotage will have less of an effect on your pursuit to offer your gift of leadership to the world around you.
Kelly: I love that. Thank you for sharing that story by the way. What are two things that you do to cultivate that practice, that internal self-love, self-caring that you're talking about?
Brandon: I do business at the speed of relationship, not the speed of transaction. I do it all the time. I mean, that is a thing for me. The speed of business is really fast. And so, we want to run, run, run, run, run, run, run. Oftentimes, in doing that, we invite what we call vendors into our lives, oh, the keyword. On my podcast, we invite the vendors into our lives, and we negate opportunities to develop partners in our lives. And so, there's an equation, and an approach inside of the book for how to do business at the speed of a relationship.
Kelly: Love this.
Brandon: The other thing that I do is, I curate a power circle. It is a small circle of people who are not there because there's a contract, or because they gain something from it, and they're more than mentors. They sow into your leadership lives and you to theirs, and they will be there if your light is dim, if you're not famous, if all of a sudden you didn't have that influential position. And these are the people who ultimately will see and call out your blind spots, and in those blind spots is where sabotage and saboteurs typically live. And a great example of that, in closing, is that as we become elevated within our companies, we become more vulnerable to sabotage because we're in a place where we don't understand everything. But there are people who are already in those divisions or in those departments that are leading, or in those work functions who do understand how to get things done. And so, it's important to have a small power circle around you who can always pull out those blinders. That saboteurs so often look for your vulnerabilities.
Kelly: Amazing. Thank you for sharing those. Those are two really powerful pieces. Brandon, thank you so much for joining me. Thanks for sharing your story. And I will put notes or links to the book and to your website in the show notes. Thanks again.
Brandon: It's been an honor. Thank you, Kelly.